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for people who care about the West

A search for meaning in the Pacific Northwest

 

Livability
Jon Raymond
272 pages,softcover: $15.
Bloomsbury USA, 2009.

If you've ever imagined that your search for meaning might finally end at an organic farm in Oregon, or on a summer gig at an Alaskan fishery, or with the sale of your first screenplay, you'll recognize the characters in Jon Raymond's short-story collection Livability.

Livability is a menagerie of unfulfilled searchers -- a widower returning to the coastal resort where he used to vacation with his wife, a young loner driving from Indiana to Alaska with just $632 and her dog. Raymond, a Portland native, sets his stories in the pallid towns and "deep, impenetrable black green" forest of the Pacific Northwest.

Not much happens there. Characters seek meaning, and unexpected human connections lead to surprising inner transformations. An affair with another solo vacationer invigorates the widower, for instance, but it also reveals that nothing will help him transcend his wife's absence. When malaise overcomes a character as he tries to explain his unfulfilling job to his 7-year-old daughter, Raymond notes that the man "had arrived at the perimeter of his selfhood, and sadly it was not as far out as he had hoped."

Raymond is an editor at a "design and culture" magazine, and some of his stories hew too closely to the world of his "creative class" demographic. The first story opens with a ringing meditation bell; straw-bale houses, community gardens and recreational pottery soon follow. In "Words and Things," an artist falls for an intellectual magazine writer, only to realize that -- surprise -- she finds meaning in things and he finds meaning in words.

But other stories are more richly imagined. In "The Suckling Pig," a wacky plot brings together Mexican day laborers and rich white idlers at a wealthy Chinese-American's "divorce party." A wickedly fun drunken class-clash ensues.

Two of the stories, "Old Joy" and "Train Choir," were adapted by film director Kelly Reichardt, with "Train Choir" becoming the much-praised movie Wendy and Lucy. The films, co-written by Raymond, have the same quietly devastating effect as his stories. Amid the lulling pace and hazy imagery, lightly sketched characters grow. Readers slowly begin to recognize people from their own lives. The affectionate yet slightly dislocated feeling is best expressed by the successful 30-something in "Old Joy" who hikes to a hot spring with a flaky old friend. They fail to reconnect, yet he finds comfort in the revelation sparked by that failure.

"What is sorrow," he asks, "but old, worn-out joy?"